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Pot decriminalization in NH moves closer to reality with committee vote

State House Bureau

May 02. 2017 11:38AM
A bud on a flowering cannabis plant at the Sanctuary ATC medical marijuana growing facility in Rochester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — A 20-year effort to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana passed a critical test on Tuesday, moving a step closer to reality.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, voting 3-2, recommended "ought to pass" on House Bill 640, a decriminalization bill that sailed through the House, 318-36, on March 8.

In order to overcome objections from law enforcement, Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, worked with stakeholders to engineer a compromise which he presented on Tuesday morning as an amendment to HB 640.

The amendment reduced the amount of marijuana subject to decriminalization from one ounce to three-quarters of an ounce, a change the House likely will find acceptable, according to state Rep. Renny Cushing, R-Hampton, a sponsor of the original House bill.

The state Association of Police Chiefs wanted to retain the right to make arrests for possession of small amounts in certain cases, which threatened to upend the entire bill. Bradley introduced an amendment to HB 640 on April 11 that would have allowed for continued arrests.

Since then, he managed to get the police chiefs to concur with the amendment he presented on Tuesday, even though they may not be that happy with it. The new amendment contains a prohibition on arrests for possession of three-quarters of an ounce or less.

"They (police chiefs) recognized that it’s rare that they are arresting people in the first instance anyway, so it’s an acceptance of reality," said Bradley after the committee vote. "It’s a compromise, and I salute law enforcement for coming to the table to work to improve a bill that they are not real thrilled about."

If the bill becomes law, the first three offenses in a three-year period by someone 18 or older would be treated as violations, with fines payable by mail.

A fourth offense would be considered a Class B misdemeanor, not subject to arrest.

Revenue from fines, ranging from $100 to $300, would go into the state alcohol and drug rehabilitation fund. The law contains a provision requiring the courts to waive the fine for a single conviction within a three-year period upon proof that the offender has completed a substance abuse assessment within 60 days.

The bill now has to pass both the House and Senate as amended, which is widely expected as a likely outcome by lawmakers in both chambers.

Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he would sign a decriminalization bill.

"His staff has been updated on this regularly and they have said all along that he will support it," said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project, who has been lobbying the State House for the past decade on this issue.

The House has passed decriminalization bills session after session since 2008, only to see them die in the Senate. The first was introduced in 1997, according to Cushing.

He credited recovery organizations like New Futures for their participation in the stakeholder discussions, albeit with reservations.

"I think it finally came together in part because the treatment advocates dealing with the general addiction problem in the state saw it made no sense to jail someone for small amounts of marijuana," he said.

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